Last night I had the privilege of attending an event put on by the Arizona Advocacy Network titled the Long Shadow of Jim Crowe. The speaker was retired Superior Court Judge Penny Willrich . Judge Willrich related to the group a story about running into her aunt during a get out the vote drive. Her aunt told her she couldn’t vote because she couldn’t afford the poll tax. This was in 1978–many years after the poll tax was no longer in force. Happily, her aunt voted in every election after that.
Judge Willrich discussed many of the barriers to voting not just for minorities, but the poor, the elderly, and new voters. Consider the tragically limited impact of the Civil War and the 15th Amendment on Black access to the political process.
Mississippi also enacted a “grandfather clause” that permitted registering anyone whose grandfather was qualified to vote before the Civil War. Obviously, this benefited only white citizens. The “grandfather clause” as well as the other legal barriers to black voter registration worked. Mississippi cut the percentage of black voting-age men registered to vote from over 90 percent during Reconstruction to less than 6 percent in 1892. These measures were copied by most of the other states in the South.
Race & Voting in the Segregated South. Remarkably, just prior to the civil rights movement, the same source reports only 7 percent of Blacks in Mississippi were registered to vote.
That all changed following the civil rights movement of the 1960’s. Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and other activists did what the Civil War and the Fifteenth Amendment could not do. They changed the hearts of the American people. The work is not done, but voter suppression today has to take much more subtle forms and could never reduce Black participation as dramatically as the work of the KKK and Jim Crowe laws did in the 1890’s. Not because we have better legal safeguards in place, or because activists are more outraged now than in the 1860’s, but because the body politic no longer accepts open discrimination of Blacks.
I make that point because I think it informs the path to political change elsewhere. (BTW I am NOT saying the work is done with regard to racism.) I think this is an opportunity for the church to provide the moral compass in movements to go beyond political rationale to reach to the moral imperative behind protecting God’s creation, protecting the weak within our borders, promoting human dignity in the treatment of our prisoners, and promoting peace in our dealings with other nations.
Shoud the Church provide the “Why” to the What & How of political change? Who else can provide the reason and motivation for change?